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Kidnappings rise in Nigeria’s oil-producing delta

Reuters

Wed Feb 4, 2009 10:59am EST

(Adds Niger Delta minister’s comments)

By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, Feb 4 (Reuters) – Gunmen in Nigeria have kidnapped the wife of a former oil minister, an employee of an Italian energy firm and an electoral official in recent days, highlighting growing insecurity in the country’s oil heartland.

Security experts say military efforts to curb crude oil theft in the Niger Delta, combined with lower world energy prices, have made the illegal trade less lucrative, prompting armed gangs to seek other sources of revenue such as ransom.

Gunmen kidnapped the wife of former oil minister Edmund Daukoru from a shopping mall in the main oil city of Port Harcourt late on Tuesday. A local employee of Italian energy firm Agip (ENI.MI) and an election commission official were taken in separate incidents in the city this week, police said.

“The government is very worried and concerned about the situation. We are not folding our arms,” said Niger Delta Minister Ufot Ekaette, whose ministry was created last year to address unrest in the region.

“We’re going round the states in the Niger Delta to discuss how best to contain the activities of the kidnappers. We agreed that they are criminals who are using the restiveness in the region to commit all sorts of atrocities,” he told Reuters.

Gunmen last week shot dead the 11-year-old daughter of a Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) worker and abducted his 9-year-old son as they walked to school.

Foreign companies in sectors ranging from telecoms to construction, have already reduced staffing levels, particularly among expatriates seen at high risk of kidnap.

Nigeria’s white collar oil workers’ union has threatened to strike from next week unless the authorities improve security, although Labour Minister Adetokunbo Kayode said on Wednesday he was confident talks could avert the planned industrial action.

 

OIL THEFT LESS PROFITABLE

Half a century of oil extraction from the Niger Delta, one of the world’s largest wetlands, has swollen government coffers and boosted the profits of foreign oil firms. But it has left many local villages polluted and impoverished.

Local youths complain they are excluded from the job market, leaving them frustrated and open to recruitment by armed gangs.

Abduction has long been part of the strategy of militants who say they are fighting for a fairer share of the natural wealth. More than 200 foreigners have been seized since early 2006, most released unharmed after a ransom payment.

“The youth have spoken. What drove them to this is lack of employment, poverty. They felt that the easy way to make money was to kidnap the white people and now they have resorted to indigenes,” Ekaette told Reuters in the capital Abuja.

“We need to work out a programme that will make them employable, get them trained,” he said.

Industry sources estimate at least 100,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) were being stolen from the Niger Delta at times last year, earning mafia-like networks millions of dollars a day when oil prices were at their peak of more than $147 a barrel.

But theft on such a scale is less profitable with crude prices near $40 a barrel.

The kidnappers of the Agip employee initially demanded 30 million naira ($200,000) for his release but later halved their ransom demand, his wife told Reuters.

“My husband was kidnapped on the way home from church. We do not have the money to pay what they are asking for,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Randy Fabi and Matthew Jones)

 

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